Does the Truth Even Matter?

JesusPilatePilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.  Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.

– John 18: 37-38

 

PILATE: Then you are a king.

JESUS: It’s you who say I am. I look for truth and find that I get damned.

PILATE: But what is truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?

– Jesus Christ Superstar, “Trial Before Pilate

 

Gudo Nishijima used to say, “The truth is only one.” In terms of science, it’s hard to argue with this. The atomic weight of hydrogen is a specific value. This is not a matter of opinion. It doesn’t change according to the religion or race of the person who measures it. If you do your calculations with the incorrect value for the atomic weight of hydrogen, your experiment will go wrong.

People still argue about who killed John F. Kennedy. I happen to think it was Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone. But even if you disagree, you would certainly agree that there is a single objectively true answer to the question of who killed JFK. It was one person, or it was a group of conspirators. But whoever actually did it isn’t a matter of opinion or faith. There is a factual answer.

Over Christmas this year it became clear to me that a person who has been a valued mentor to me for most of my life was being taken advantage of by someone who was lying to him and stealing from him. I confronted both him and the person who has been duping him. That’s when I found out my trusted mentor values lies more than the truth and that there was nothing I could do to change that.

His decision will have consequences. At some point, maybe not too long from now, the person who has been lying to my once trusted mentor will steal all that my ex-mentor has to steal and he will no longer have the ability to provide more. It’s possible he’ll then begin to understand that the truth, though harsh, is more reliable than lies. Or maybe by that time it won’t matter.

Lies may be comforting in the short term. But they cause problems. If you believe things that are untrue, you’ll make the wrong decisions. History is full of great examples, like Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, wherein whole societies bought into ideas that turned out to be untrue and then paid the price.

When Buddhist nerds get together sometimes they talk about absolute truth and relative truth. I’ve never been able to make heads or tails out of this idea. So I am supremely unqualified to explain it. I think it’s the notion that there are things that are true in some sort of abstract absolute world that are untrue in our everyday lives. Or something like that.

I don’t pay much attention to ideas that don’t make sense to me. I don’t believe in two truths. I agree with Nishijima Roshi that there is only one truth.

When I was young I decided I wanted to pursue the truth. It was the most important thing to me. I looked for a way to find the truth and I found zazen. I’ve worked with zazen now for most of my life and I feel like I made the correct choice.

There is a big difference between the truth and an explanation or description of the truth. You can describe the same truth in a variety of different ways. All of those different ways might be true, in the sense that they are honest and represent the best efforts of the people who attempted to put those truths into words. Sort of like that old story about the elephant and the blind guys.

But in that old story, each blind guy makes the mistake of believing his part of the elephant represents the whole thing. So we have to watch ourselves when we express our little portions of the greater truth. We need to be honest about the bits of the greater truth that we experience, while understanding that whatever lies outside of that experience might not be exactly like the part we have in our hands. And we have to be aware that even this is incomplete, that there are things even within our own experience that we are unable to perceive clearly or express in any coherent way.

So the truth does matter. When we accept what is true we can act accordingly and our chances of falling flat on our asses are thereby reduced. On the other hand, no one of us knows or perceives the entirety of the truth. We are always blind to certain aspects, no matter how much we meditate or how clearly we are able to observe things.

Some of us seek after a glimpse of the Ultimate Truth. I know I did. My feelings after working on that particular conundrum for a number of years is that you can get what amounts to a kind of peek behind the curtain if you really, really make some serious and sustained effort over a long period of time.

But what you get for your time and effort isn’t exactly Ultimate Truth. At least not in the way we usually imagine it. It’s more like you’re one of those blind guys groping at the elephant and, just for a second, you gain sight. But since you’ve been blind for your whole life, the very experience of sight itself is totally overwhelming. You’re not able to make a whole lot of sense of what you’re seeing. It’s as if you’ve never perceived colors before in your entire existence and all of a sudden there are red things and blue things and green things and… oh my!

You come away from the experience not so much feeling like at last you have understood the Ultimate Truth as feeling like at last you’ve confirmed for yourself that there is an Ultimate Truth, even if you can’t be quite certain what, exactly, that Ultimate Truth actually is.

But I’ll tell you something else. Just knowing that much is pretty mind blowing.

* * *

Our Saturday morning zazen in Culver City now starts at 10:00 am!

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UPCOMING EVENTS

April 22, 2016 New York, New York Interdependence Project

April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”

October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat

ONGOING EVENTS

Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!

Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website, dsla.info

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43 Responses

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  1. Beinghuman
    Beinghuman January 9, 2016 at 12:28 am |

    I find when people won’t listen to what you feel you know is 100% true, it can be one of the most frustrating experiences. From my own experience, there has to be a point where you stop trying to make someone ‘see’ or damage ends up being done. Perhaps (and I’m certainly no Buddhist scholar) that is what is meant by relative and absolute truth? That although something can be so universally true that it should slap everyone with its infinite verity (drugs are bad for you) but for a particular person perhaps not taking drugs is worse at this particular moment. It’s a crap example. I wonder whether your mentor won’t see the truth because right now, seeing that truth seems more damaging than letting it occur.

    I’m waffling. Great post which really resonates with something in personally going through with my eldest daughter. What I do know is that the closer the person who will not listen to a truth, the more frustrating the situation becomes.

    In the end I guess we can only hold on to what we know is true for us and try (and this is really hard – at least for me) to avoid self-righteousness.

    Have a peaceful day everyone.

  2. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara January 9, 2016 at 2:51 am |

    The way I imagine that bible story is, Jesus knows that he’s got to be true to Jesus’s experience of truth – even if it gets him whacked … which is a pretty wise and humble way for him to do his job. Pilate lets truth be decided by the consensus of the mob, even if he feels icky about it … which is a pretty wise and humble way for him to do his job – avoiding riots and all.

    It’s a nice fable about how idealism and materialism are both unsatisfactory.

    I like to believe that people all have a similar core experience of reality. Not just that we can agree on the weight of hydrogen, our most basic values and feelings are the same too. I like to believe it, but people can do some pretty baffling shit at times.

  3. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon January 9, 2016 at 5:09 am |

    I think that the Upanishads are far superior to the Bible if you are looking for truth in myths. Even though the Upanishads contain stories about people and gods who never existed, doing things and having conversations that never occurred, they also contain many philosophical and psychological truths. I consider the Upanishads to be almost an “old testament” of Buddhism because although the Upanishads contain much truth, they also contain some errors which Buddhism later pointed out and corrected.
    The Bible has so little philosophy in it that Christian patriarchs have had to steal from the ancient Greek Pagan philosophers (whose books they burned for being “heretical”) in order to make any sense of the “real world” and to find connections between the “real world” and their collection of myths.

    1. Fred
      Fred January 9, 2016 at 7:11 am |

      The truth is seen and lived but it has nothing to do with the ongoing fiction of self

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtFI0BXiXKw

  4. Mumbles
    Mumbles January 9, 2016 at 8:11 am |

    Very nice post, Brad, one of your best. Thank you for being forthcoming and elaborating on what you alluded to in My Christmas Sucked. That last post was definitely related to the one before it, No Speaking of Past Regrets, as is the present post. It makes a kind of backwards feedback loop. I know you didn’t plan it this way but nicely done. The truth is one. Your willingness to discuss your own raw experience and relating it to your practice is what makes this blog tick. Thank you so much for that.

    I’ve certainly been in the same position you describe here, assuming a good friend would rather know the truth than continue to be exploited and abused. But they didn’t believe me, they wanted to believe in the lie. My feelings were hurt. How could this person doubt my sincerity, etc.? We never spoke again. A few years passed and I came back to the city where she lived and saw her in an old hang out (ok, a bar). She was with some people I didn’t know, and she just stared at me the whole time. Even though I obviously had her attention, I certainly didn’t feel like going over and making awkward small talk. Later, a mutual friend told me the truth had come out, that I had been right all along, and she knew that day she stared and stared and couldn’t bring herself to come over and speak to me. I’d been vindicated! But at what price? Our friendship, which I regretted losing for a long, long, time.

    Eventually one way or the other you need to let the past go or it will eat you from the inside out. An experience like that can embitter and destroy your faith in other people, in yourself. But the truth will out. It always does. If you stand for the truth you will continue to speak it, too, testify. The truth IS one.

  5. Fred Jr.
    Fred Jr. January 9, 2016 at 9:06 am |

    Maybe the stuff happening you don’t like is happening for a reason you don’t understand?

  6. sri_barence
    sri_barence January 9, 2016 at 10:14 am |

    I like to explain it this way: There is only one Universe, which includes everything, both matter and ideas, and somehow transcends them both. It is impossible to expound this truth with words, so ancient masters have used gestures (holding up a flower for example), or shouting, “KATZ!!” This is the “Absolute,” ineffable truth.

    But if you are sitting at dinner, and you want someone to pass the salt, you say, “Please pass the salt.” This is the “relative” truth.

    If you get stuck in one mode or the other, the Zen Master might say, “You understand one, but you don’t understand two.” So it is necessary to be able to use what is appropriate to the moment.

    To illustrate this, here is a kong-an.

    The Zen Master holds up a cup. He says, “Do not say it is a cup; do not say it is not a cup.” How can you answer?

    Sugar is sweet; salt is salty.
    Thank you for reading this message.

  7. Harlan
    Harlan January 9, 2016 at 10:24 am |

    Sorry about your mentor/friend thing but how does his/her not acting on another version of the truth make them an ex-anything?

  8. Mumon
    Mumon January 9, 2016 at 10:29 am |

    “When I was young I decided I wanted to pursue the truth. It was the most important thing to me. I looked for a way to find the truth and I found zazen. I’ve worked with zazen now for most of my life and I feel like I made the correct choice.”

    “So the truth does matter. When we accept what is true we can act accordingly and our chances of falling flat on our asses are thereby reduced. On the other hand, no one of us knows or perceives the entirety of the truth. We are always blind to certain aspects, no matter how much we meditate or how clearly we are able to observe things.”

    “You come away from the experience not so much feeling like at last you have understood the Ultimate Truth as feeling like at last you’ve confirmed for yourself that there is an Ultimate Truth, even if you can’t be quite certain what, exactly, that Ultimate Truth actually is.”

    Just sincerely do your best. Now you can ask yourself, “Am I being sincere?” and if you pursue that question it sort of maps into “What is this?” or “Who am I?”

    I think though, it’s kind of sort of irrelevant as to whether there’s an Ultimate Truth or whether it’s a by-product of the mechanisms that have evolved into our brains. Just sincerely do your best.

    It is very painful when people are dishonest and insincere, and yet we still the only knobs we can turn have to do with our own sincerity.

  9. Dogen
    Dogen January 9, 2016 at 10:40 am |

    Don’t worry, Jundu will see the truth for himself one day.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=0rEVwwB3Iw0

  10. sri_barence
    sri_barence January 9, 2016 at 11:34 am |

    Also:

    I know, I’m being used
    But that’s OK, ‘cuz I like the abuse
    -The Offspring, “Self Esteem”

  11. Used-rugs
    Used-rugs January 9, 2016 at 12:07 pm |

    As for relative truth vs. absolute truth: small mind makes the world go round but big mind stops the world in its tracks. It’s only right that society would fear such a wide open state of mind or for some Buddhists to claim that it doesn’t exist at all, except as some kind of vague metaphor for human goodness or something. But that shit ain’t the truth.

  12. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 9, 2016 at 1:10 pm |

    David Ruffin, thanks Fred!

    ‘Bell hooks defines love as “the action we take on behalf of our own or another’s spiritual growth.”‘- (from “That’s So Zen” by Gesshin Greenwood)

    Interventions on behalf of another’s person’s psychological or physical well-being can miss the heart of the matter, in my limited experience.

    I know there was a scandal when a Zen master let some youngster drown. I know I am still brought up short every time I think about Kobun drowning in shallow water, alongside his daughter.

    It’s not about the number of years on the Flying Dutchman, it’s about the key.

    The only way to do right is to confess helplessness to do right, and open the heart to Avalokitesvara to act. Ah ha ha ha! Sorry. Ok, how is the inconceivable actualized immediately, when it’s not readily apparent?- does the inhalation enter and reach the tanden- is encompassing the four quarters of the world, above, below, with the mind of friendship necessary to traceless activity (is it necessary to exhalation)?

    It’s not so easy to comprehend the long or short of inhalation or exhalation with making self-surrender the object of thought, without the experience of the cessation of habitual activity in the body connected with inhalation or exhalation; fortunately that’s everyday.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQlyHbu0zz4

    1. Fred
      Fred January 9, 2016 at 2:15 pm |

      Love will only get in the way, Brad

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ujhd4bB8QyY

    2. Mark Foote
      Mark Foote January 9, 2016 at 2:18 pm |

      s/b “without making self-surrender the object of thought”

  13. Fred
    Fred January 9, 2016 at 2:17 pm |

    “Ah ha ha ha! Sorry. Ok, how is the inconceivable actualized immediately, when it’s not readily apparent?-”

    It actualizes itself. You is just along for the ride.

    1. Mark Foote
      Mark Foote January 9, 2016 at 2:20 pm |

      feels like that, to me. A planchette, on the ouija board of life.

      But comprehending the long or short of inhalation or exhalation, who does that.

  14. Fred
    Fred January 9, 2016 at 2:37 pm |

    Love, love, love, you can’t give it away

    You changed the words, Bradley. Or she did.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGciMcpP-sM

  15. Fred
    Fred January 9, 2016 at 2:55 pm |

    “But comprehending the long or short of inhalation or exhalation, who does that.”

    the ghost in you.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ltz2BuszIR4

  16. Mumbles
    Mumbles January 9, 2016 at 2:55 pm |

    I am the master of my fate,

    I am the captain of my soul.

    Whitman’s essential message was the Open Road. The leaving of the soul free unto herself, the leaving of his fate to her and to the loom of the open road. Which is the bravest doctrine man has ever proposed to himself.

    Alas, he didn’t quite carry it out. He couldn’t quite break the old maddening bond of the love-compulsion; he couldn’t quite get out of the rut of the charity habit – for Love and Charity have degenerated now into habit: a bad habit.

    – D. H. Lawrence, chap 12 from his Studies in Classic American Literature. Entire chapter here:
    http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/lawrence/dhlch12.htm

    1. Used-rugs
      Used-rugs January 9, 2016 at 3:59 pm |

      Walt Whitman will one day be recognized as being America’s first dirty old Zen master.

  17. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 9, 2016 at 4:37 pm |
  18. french-roast
    french-roast January 10, 2016 at 2:23 am |

    What is truth? Can truth be something which we can debate about? I would not think so.

    The word truth is being used in many different contexts to mean different things. Mathematicians talk of mathematical truth, scientist talk of scientific truth, etc. For the ancient Greek, truth (Alethia) meant unconcealing; to bring what is hidden into the open. I would think that this is the kind of truth that Brad is referring to.

    We can make use of the word truth as nouns and more rarely unfortunately as verb. As nouns it is most often used as an attribute, ‘this statement is true’, etc. As verb it is the act of bringing the hidden into the open, the act of unconcealing, it is not the ‘what’ that has been unconcealed or brought into the open, this what is noun, a something, a something which we implicitly see as an absolute. The truth in Zen is verb, and has nothing at all to do with books, sutras, mathematical formulas, theories, etc. One is the truth as one reveals, as one disclose, as one unwrap. The very seeking in Zen is truth (verb), it is the questioning, not the what has been revealed, disclosed, uncovered, not the meaningless recursive endless repetition of sutra, chants, passages of Buddhist books, etc. Truth is verb, and as verb, it is not open for debate, for it is openness itself (verb). As one unwrap, one is the unwrapping.

    And so does the truth even matters? As nouns, not much!

    1. Fred
      Fred January 10, 2016 at 11:06 am |

      Philosophical Reviews:

      “Heidegger’s notion of unconcealment, however, does not address any such failure to unconceal, and hence cannot be counted as a notion of truth at all. This criticism is bolstered by Paul Friedländer’s research showing that alêtheia carries the sense of propositional truth even in early Greek texts, undermining Heidegger’s supposition that the Greeks had a more “originary” experience of unconcealment. Heidegger himself seems to acknowledge that he has made a mistake. In his talk “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” he states that “the question about aletheia, about unconcealment as such, is not the question about truth. It was inadequate and hence misleading to call aletheia, in the sense of the clearing, truth.”

      All of this adds up to the impression that whatever Heidegger was pursuing with his notion of originary unconcealment turned out to be untenable and that he consequently abandoned it. If, however, unconcealment is the basic conceptual frame of Heidegger’s later thought on truth, language, and history, then this impression thoroughly misleads attempts to interpret that thought”

      Truth as alethia, unconcealment or the clearing in terms of philosophical systems of thought leads back into human thought, and from the viewpoint of this brain back into the labyrinths of concealment.

      Truth in Buddhist terms is the stripping, the tearing away of structures giving legs to this conditioned identity while just sitting, and the unconcealed ineffable
      coming forth illuminated.

      1. Fred
        Fred January 10, 2016 at 11:15 am |

        Which sounds like a lot of shit,

        but the ” unconcealed ineffable coming forth illuminated ” is very real.

  19. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon January 10, 2016 at 1:12 pm |
  20. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara January 10, 2016 at 1:35 pm |

    I love the way that people get their thongs in a knot over ‘truth’.

    Truth is a concept that you can’t really apply to: situations; or experiences; or objects; or people. ‘Truth’ only applies to statements. Saying that a statement (or a set of them) is “true”, or it “has truth” just means it’s not bullshit. End of.

    Nothing you ever saw, or heard, or did, or that happened, is any more or less ‘true’ than anything else. The Supreme Tao (if there is one), or God (ditto), or New Zealand (ditto) are no more and no less true than my butthole.

    Any other use of the word “truth” is just a metaphor. Saying, “that picture is true to life”, just means it looks like something. When Keats said, “beauty is truth, truth beauty”, he was just trying to sound profound. When Jesus said, “I am the truth”, he was just trying to explain the ideas of anatman and anitya that he picked up in India to some illiterate goatherders. When Nishijima said “there is only one truth”, he might just have been saying that communication is possible.

    IMHO, or whatever. if opinions are like assholes, I’m a sieve made of sphincters.

    1. Fred
      Fred January 10, 2016 at 4:35 pm |

      Thanks Canyon. #5 was enjoyable.

      1. Fred
        Fred January 10, 2016 at 7:18 pm |

        “McCarthy, who has been running the Upaya Zen Center for the past six months, is also the founder of the Kent Zendo community on campus. As a teacher of Theravada Buddhism, he is trained in the fine art of what is called “mindfulness meditation,” which is simply defined, he said, as the zazen practice of “being aware of what already is there.”

        Being aware of what already is there, he saw need arising and responded with love

        “will steal all that my ex-mentor has to steal and he will no longer have the ability to provide more. It’s possible he’ll then begin to understand that the truth, though harsh, is more reliable than lies. Or maybe by that time it won’t matter.”

        Hesse:

        ““Govinda said: “But what you call thing, is it something real, something intrinsic? Is it not only the illusion of Maya, only image and appearance? Your stone, your tree, are they real?”
        “This also does not trouble me much,” said Siddhartha. “If they are illusion, then I also am illusion, and so they are always of the same nature as myself. It is that which makes them so lovable and venerable. That is why I can Love them. And here is a doctrine at which you will laugh. It seems to me, Govinda, that love is the most imortant thing in the world. It may be important tp great thinkers to examine the world, to explain an despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect.”

    2. senorchupacabra
      senorchupacabra January 12, 2016 at 9:07 am |

      This is easily the best response on here.

      Even if we’re talking about the “truth” of physics, they’re only true in a vacuum. Let’s take gravity for example. The “truth” or “law” of gravity is the same all over. However, there’s also the “truth” or “law” of friction and the two truths can collide and create different effects. When those two specific truth meet, for example, it’s when we have a bowling ball that drops more quickly than a feather. The truth of gravity applies equally to the bowling ball and the feather, but so does the truth of friction. So which truth is “more true”? The question is so silly as to be meaningless.

  21. Khru 2.0
    Khru 2.0 January 10, 2016 at 7:56 pm |

    Trying to find “the answers to life” can not be done in our lifetimes. Why waste our time and energy with all the speculation? Maybe after we’re dead we’ll find out; but maybe not. In the meantime, just attend to the stillness with good posture.

    “Because words will never explain
    why everything happens,
    And thoughts will never understand
    why everything is,
    The sage attends to the peaceful stillness
    of an inner balance.”

    Lao Tzu

  22. Harlan
    Harlan January 11, 2016 at 12:19 am |
  23. jason farrow
    jason farrow January 11, 2016 at 1:58 am |

    The Absolute is Nirvana, the Relative is Samsara. One truth.
    The means of achieving the Absolute lay in the Relative , such as zazen.
    The means of creating a better Samsara lay in experience of the Absolute.

    While the two are the same, the two are not the same.
    One truth with 2 sides.

    Money isn’t Real, it is just an appearance. To engage in it is to engage in suffering. Not engaging in it, is to engage in suffering. And yet, in Dharma, suffering due to money doesn’t make any sense.

    How can you teach that when you rely on money?

    It could said that a discrimination between the Apparent, and the Real;
    Is not a valid discrimination.

    We are born with everything we ever needed, and we still seek more. We even fabricate it and call it “Real.”

  24. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara January 11, 2016 at 2:30 am |
  25. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon January 11, 2016 at 4:15 am |

    “Look up here, I’m in heaven…”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-JqH1M4Ya8

  26. Fred
    Fred January 11, 2016 at 4:55 am |
  27. Used-rugs
    Used-rugs January 11, 2016 at 8:35 am |

    “If God does not exist then everything is permissible.”-Dostoevsky

    Or to put it another way, if the truth does not exist then everyone is just a fucking salesman.

    That works for most people in our postmodern age but I can’t be that cynical anymore.

  28. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon January 11, 2016 at 10:51 am |

    “Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying…”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5rjNY8dMzc

  29. Michel
    Michel January 12, 2016 at 12:54 pm |

    “If God does not exist then everything is permissible.”-Dostoevsky

    Which is really a typical prejudice, whereas recent research has demonstrated that people without a God are much more civil…

Comments are closed.